I had the kind of day yesterday I’d been yearning for– almost no phone calls, just me looking out at a gray sky, some writing, some computer business, a stack of papers for my last Advanced Novel Class tonight, books. I took a long walk, went to the dump with cardboard, finished Howard’s End for the umpteenth time, but probably not in ten years. Better enjoy the quiet, as soon my mom will be here, and then Joel and Sarah for a whirlwind of activity. Christmas tree, cards to send out, a Christmas letter. Christmas dinner.
Here's this week's...
Books for Readers
Newsletter # 102
December 9. 2007
I write often about how many good books are going unpublished, unpublicized and thus unpurchased and unread. I probably don’t always praise highly enough the books that are getting published. My most recent discovery– hardly much of a discovery, since the Portuguese author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the late 90's– is BLINDNESS by José Saramago. I’ve read a couple of Saramago’s books in the past, and am particularly bond of BALTAZAR AND BLIMUNDA. This novel falls in the general category of speculative fiction, which means that it’s a novel set more or less in this world we live in, but some premise is put forth that is not actually happening, as far as we know. Generally, speculative fiction is less full of magic and myth than, say Magical Realism, but on a continuum would be tucked in near Magical Realism. I wrote recently about NEVER LET ME GO, also probably speculative fiction as well as high literature. In BLINDNESS the premise is that a mysterious disease is suddenly, catastrophically, making the entire population of a city go blind. There is apparently one exception.
As the disease strikes rapidly but not simultaneously, the early cases are quarantined in a deserted mental hospital, where blind thugs take over the food distribution and everyone defecates wherever they feel like it– after all, no one can see. The prominence of feces in this novel is particularly striking: wherever people walk, it is underfoot, and the smell assaults everyone all the time. There are some ugly rapes, but they actually lead to a solidarity among the women, whereas the defecation calls up no unity.
It’s a remarkable novel, in a wonderful way a kind of old man’s novel. This is not to suggest that young people wouldn’t get anything out of it, and certainly not to suggest it lacks any vigor or invention. Rather, I mean that where novels by young people often rage between flares of hope and depths of despair, this one moves forward focused sparely on survival, which demands co-operation. The spareness includes not using proper names, for example, and a dry practical conviction about what is likely to happen to people when they don’t have their ususal props and rules. Even the emphasis on the scatological is oddly moving: an elder’s recognition that bodily functions are not to be taken for granted in any way.
I’m still not sure after three books what Saramago gets out his quirky punctuation, which is half page paragraphs with nothing but commas for separation. Speakers run from one into the next in a polyphony that is remarkable among other things for how quickly you get used to it. Saramago is famously a leftist, of course, and this is a group novel. The one person who can see has a great deal of strength and kindness, but it is clear that she is no different from the others, except that she can see. There is no hero of supreme egotism and daring. There is enormous individuation and plenty of human dignity, and even some heroic actions , but it is all shared among many, which is, when you think about it, how the real world is.
So I recommend this book highly, in spite of how intimidating the pages look. You find yourself loving the girl with sunglasses; the first blind man; the little boy with a squint; the doctor, the doctor’s wife, and rooting for their tiny, hard won victories. I’m so glad Saramago is still writing, and that there are more of his books I haven’t read yet.
SUPPLEMENT: A WEST VIRGINIA WRITER DIES
Many of us are still struggling in and on the fringes of the New York commercial book scene. There are many other literary worlds, however, some regional, some based on regions, ethnic groups, and other affinities. These smaller circles are essential to the richness of literature, to the self-exploration of individuals and groups– plus they produce lots of wonderful things to read that are often never seen by wider audiences. One such circle I know a little is the northern West Virginia writing community that centers around Morgantown, the home of West Virginia University. I’m not speaking here, however, of the Univeristy’s writing programs and internationally known literary artists, but rather the people who socialize, read, and sing in small groups or at local bars. Sometimes they work in groups, sometimes all alone. George Lies’s obituary of one of these writers, Joe Gratski, is at the bottom of this page.
MORE ON ISHIGURO
Rebecca Kavaler writes, “Thanks for reminding me of Ishiguro's wonderful novel, NEVER LET ME GO. Every review at the time, whether misjudging this as science fiction or understanding it as a metaphor for the human condition, used the adjective "disturbing." And disturbing it is to think of how "completion" is inevitably our fate, how we lose one by one our faculties, how we are reduced to hoping for immortality in art (Madame and the Gallery, and yet this does not fully explain the emotional impact of this novel. It is impossible (for me, at least) to weep for the human race--but only for Kathy and Tommy and Ruth, and, attesting to the skill of this writer, weep I did. It was the hopelessness that was so sad. For even the pale satisfaction of surviving in our descendants is denied these childless clones. And how clever of Ishiguro to refuse to explain the workings of this world--making it clear this is not science fiction, merely fiction--of the highest kind.”
MORE RECENT READING
MY LOVE, MY LOVE: OR, THE PEASANT GIRL by Rosa Guy is a tale that charmed me in the end. They made a musical out of it a long time ago. It has voudoun gods and class barriers and a tragic ending, but is also somehow light and delightful: broad emotional storkes, but precise details of landscape, conflcts, fruit.
Noah Lukeman’s A DASH OF STYLE: THE ART AND MASTERY OF PUNCTUATION has some interesting and very quotable passages, but in the end it is a monograph padded into being a book. Each chapter ends with a sort of “Your Personality As Shown Through Your Writing Style.” I don’t recommend paying full price for it, but it’s not a bad work to have around for reference.
Kent Haruf’s justly praised PLAINSONG is big popular book from a couple of years ago that I had meant to read and finally did. It is Midwestern laconic and very touching, managing to be a gripping story without a lot of pyrotechnics. Haruf has a quirk of not using quotation marks and also very few tags or descriptors of how things are said. This seems to work, especially for his particular characters. It also creates a sameness in the voices so that you have a feeling of a large silence even when the people talk. The pattern is landscape and events with his sad but sympathetic characters, and then there will be a few unadorned lines of dialogue. It had a flat quality that was totally inappropriate, but occasionally annoying. There is a lot of white space in the novel anyhow, so there are a couple of scenes that felt like they had too much to me, especially a scene in which two old brothers decide to take a pregnant girl in to live with them. I believe they would do it, but this is one of those cases where I prefer mystery or elision rather than a dramatized scebe. He leaves the mother’s leathing a mystery, so why not also a mystery about this thing? Mostly, though, it’s just a solid, moving story.
I also read ISTANBUL: MEMORIES AND THE CITY by Orhan Pamuk. I wanted to like this more than I did. I adored the black and white photos that Pamuk loves too, and a lot of the thoughts and considerations about the sadness of a post empire-city. The book has a powerful ending and a fair amount of humor, but for some reason, I didn’t really like Orhan the little kid much. This is unusual, as I’m ordinarily a sucker for little kids. But there is some tone in this book that I think is meant to feel hard nosed and unsentimental toward his little self from the past, but it ends up by creating (again, to my taste) an unpleasant little kid. I liked the teenage parts best and the adult mullings. Pamuks’ family didn’t seem very attractive. I don’t know whether the effort to be honest did away with affection or what. But oh those pictures and stories about Istanbul!
Rochelle Ratner has a new book out, SPEAKING IN TONGUES: A STUDY OF PERSONA IN AMERICAN, CANADIAN, AND BRITISH POETRY . This was written back in 1984, a critical study never before published. Now “Galatea Resurrects” will be publishing selected chapters: It examines the work of Bill Knott, Andrei Codrescu, Armand Schwerner, and Jack Spicer as well as the writings of HD, Diane DiPrima, and Margaret Atwood.
Cat Pleska has an interesting online article on West Virginia woodworking in the magazine WONDERFUL WEST VIRGINIA. It is featured on their website, so you can click on the link. At the top, you'll see a photo of a man working on cradles, and the title is "Hearts and Hands at Work." Click on that and it'll take you to the article. Her husband, Dan, is a member of this group and one of the toymakers. See www.wonderfulwv.com .
Chris Grabenstein has a new holiday thriller: HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS, which PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY says “has a spectacular finish...sure to please his fans." Chris offers autographed bookplates to personalize your gift– Just e-mail Chris at Author@ChrisGrabenstein.com and he'll mail as many as you need back to you!
Roberta Allen has stories coming up in THE BROOKLYN RAIL; THE SAINT ANN’S REVIEW; THE VESTAL REVIEW; KGB Bar Lit Online; the anthology UP IS UP BUT SO IS DOWN; RIVERINE: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Writers; CREATIVE WRITING IN FOUR GENRES; and GARGOYLE MAGAZINE.
Barbara Crooker has new poems up .
(Some of these I’ll be reviewing in future issues, but you may want to think about them for holiday gifts now!)
FROM MAY TO DECEMBER by Pat MacEnulty
KING OF SWORDS by Miguel Antonio Ortiz– website at
OHIO RIVER DIALOGUES A novel by William Zink See http://www.sugarloafpress.blogspot.com/
THINKING OF MILLER PLACE A MEMOIR OF SUMMER COMFORT by Ethel Lee-Miller has just been published.
READ IT ONLINE
Two good articles about the future of the book, e-readers, etc.:
Writing advice, inspiration, conversation, a community of writers -- you'll find all this and more at TRUEVOICE, THE BLOG by Bill Henderson. Take a look!
Book Critics Circle has a nice blog with book thoughts:
Here is the latest issue of WORDRIOT at http://www.wordriot.org
In this month's issue: Fiction by Chuck Augello, Randall Brown, Lawrence Buentello, Andrew Coburn, Maria Deira, David Gianatasio, Drew Lackovic, Mathias Nelson, John Nyman, Mitch Omar, Nick Ostdick, Philip Oyok, Sean Ruane and Corey Zeller plus poetry and more.